New World guest conductor Denève honors Ukraine with a rearranged program

By Lawrence Budmen

St. Louis Symphony’s Stéphane Denève led the New World Symphony at Miami’s Arsht Center on Saturday night.

New World Symphony guest conductor Stéphane Denève opened Saturday night’s concert at the Arsht Center with remarks about Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine and the power of art to unify and engender hope. To emphasize the point, the visiting Frenchman reversed the order of the program’s first half. Instead of a lighthearted Haydn, Denève commenced with heavier fare: the second movement Allegretto from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, followed without pause by Carlos Simon’s Fate Now Conquers, a 2020 work based on the harmonic structure of the Beethoven movement. 

Denève opted for a measured, flowing tempo in the Beethoven, with crisp accents and a huge range of dynamics — from a near-whisper to full-throttle forte — highlighting a deeply felt reading of this celebrated excerpt. 

From there, the terse chords and rapid arpeggios at the onset of the Simon score portended a totally different sonic world. Whirling wind figurations and loud, energetic climaxes suggested something like an apocalypse. In the midst of the relentless chaos, the tonal sweetness of Emily Yoshimoto’s cello provided a classical interlude. Simon’s tour de force is an effective new-music study of Beethoven, and the New World fellows gave it a suitably stellar workout with sharp, virtuosic orchestral playing. In response to the audience’s cheering reception, Denève held up the score. 

Joseph Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante in B-flat Major was written for a London concert series that turned the Austrian composer into a celebrity. Scored for a quartet of violin, cello, oboe and bassoon with orchestra, the confection abounds in graceful melodies and high spirits. Four members of the St. Louis Symphony, where Denève is music director, served as the soloists.

The pure tone of Jelena Dirks’ oboe contrasted nicely with the deeper sonority of Andrew Cuneo’s bassoon. Violinist Eva Kozma’s singing line and aristocratic phrasing was nicely matched by the lighter compass of Bjorn Ranheim’s cello. The four players worked together like a finely drilled chamber music unit, and Denève’s sense of balance between soloists and orchestra was astutely proportioned. 

In the Allegro con spirito finale, the strong accents and bravura flourishes of Kozma’s violin recitative commanded attention. Ranheim’s swift dexterity finally gave the cello a chance to take center stage. The movement’s sprightly theme was given lift and sparkle by Denève. The orchestral textures were lean and smoothly contoured. 

Denève’s idiomatic affinity for French music has always been distinguished by an especially lucid delineation of detail and musical pulse. Two works by Debussy aptly demonstrated his mastery. From his Nocturnes for orchestra, “Nuages” (“Clouds”) offered wispy glints of impressionist tonal coloring with Denève conjuring up a languid aura. A vigorous string attack at the first bars of “Fetes” (“Festivals”), buttressed by taut pacing, generated audible excitement. Denève also brought out timbral strands in the instrumentation that are often obscured. 

The three-movement tone painting Ibéria is from Images, Debussy’s final completed orchestral work. With castanets clicking and winds singing folksy motifs in shades both reflective and vociferous, the conductor skillfully synthesized Debussy’s Gallic-accented portrait of Spain. Gleaming strings pictured the soft scent of “Perfumes of the Night.” Ringing of chimes and string players strumming their instruments like guitars introduced “Morning of a Festival Day.” The five member percussion section was fully engaged and spot-on for every one of Debussy’s rhythmic twists and turns.

With the recent announcement of Michael Tilson Thomas’ retirement as artistic director, this tremendously talented conductor deserves serious consideration as his successor. The New World players certainly enjoyed working with him: They applauded Denève at his every appearance, and the audience likewise awarded him standing ovations and bravos.

Roderick Cox conducts the New World Symphony in Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Helix, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 and Victor Herbert’s Cello Concerto No. 2 with soloist Zuill Bailey, 8 p.m. March 26 and 2 p.m. March 27 at the New World Center in Miami Beach.

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Sun Mar 6, 2022
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